Sometimes startup stories sound like fables.
Last year Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, two Stanford grad students, started Roominate, a toy company focused on getting girls excited about tech. Their DIY wired dollhouse kit–which crushed its Kickstarter goal and got written up in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal–has now shipped to 5,000 families through their website and will soon head to retailers.
The company was building into its next phase–and Brooks and Chen had already gone to China to check out their manufacturers firsthand. But as the next phase came, they wanted to bring in the experts.
Blank wanted to know why:
“So what would the retail channel consultant do?” I asked. Alice looked at me like I was a bit slow, but went on to describe how this consultant was going to take their product around to buyers inside major retail chains like Target, Toys “R” Us, Walmart, and others to see if they could get them to buy their product. “That sounds great.” I said, “When are you leaving for the trip?”
The founders looked confused, Blank writes, and soon explained that they wouldn’t be joining for these sales calls–the consultant would just go and report back.
This, to Blank, was not the way to go. What if a buyer asked for a customer version? What if a buyer said no? Would they be able to answer on the spot?
“Think about it for a minute. You’re going to pay someone else to learn and discover if your product fits this channel, and you’re are not going to do any of the learning yourself?”
Brooks and Chen had gotten on a plane to China and learned a ton there–so why wouldn’t they “get on a plane” to oversee sales calls? Because they’re focusing on the product. Because they think of themselves as builders, rather than salespeople. Because they’re busy.
If you want to be the CEO and run the company later on, Blank says, you need experts to teach you their expertise, rather than report their results to you. Otherwise, he warns, your investors will install an operations executive in your place.
Plus, by coming along for the call, you get unmediated feedback, which informs your next iteration. Moreover, this will broaden your knowledge base, giving you the generalist chops associated with creative thinking.
As a founder, Blank observes, you need to be the one doing the learning–not the consultants you hired on. But maybe it’s an old rule, too: We think it has something to do with teaching someone how to fish.